Salopek, the Sahel and spring 2008

I’m ploughing through past issues of National Geographic Magazine, partly for research, partly for inspiration, and partly because my e-reader just doesn’t go with the setting I’m currently in (but these beloved, tattered yellow borders do).

Every once-in-a-while comes a story that just makes me ask myself is this all that I’m really doing (I don’t mean slouched in a hammock and reading – but writing about the things that I write)? You know the kind: risky, adventurous, arduous, but so enriching that just reading about it is never enough. It tickles, it stings, it nags you like a mosquito bite. And now I’m sitting with 11 opened tabs looking for more.

This piece was written by a two-time Pulitzer winning journalist, an environmental biologist by education, Paul Salopek. The feature is not about environmentalism at all, although there are section where he discusses and maps the changes in precipitation and vegetation in the Sahel (the ecoclimatic and biogeographic zone of transition between the Sahara desert in the North and the Sudanian Savannas in the south) over the past few decades.


My favourite bits:


LOST IN THE SAHEL (April 2008): Along Africa’s harsh frontier between desert and forest, crossing some lines can be fatal


The road was not really a road. Its two ruts led into Darfur, to the war in western Sudan, from the unmarked border of Chad. So much of the Sahel was like this—unmapped, invisible, yet a boundary nonetheless. We were crossing boundaries with every passing hour, mostly without seeing them.


The Sahel itself is a line.


The word means “shore” in Arabic, which implies a continental margin, a grand beginning and a final end. Stretching across northern Africa roughly along the 13th parallel, the Sahel divides—or unites, depending on your philosophical bent—the sands of the Sahara and Africa’s tropical forests. It is a belt of semiarid grassland that separates (or joins) Arabs and blacks, Muslims and Christians, nomads and farmers, a landscape of greens and a world of tans. Some 50 million of the world’s poorest, most disempowered, most forgotten people hang fiercely on to life there.


The Sahel is a bullet’s trajectory. It is the track of rains that fall but never touch the sand. It is a call to prayer and a call for your blood, and for me a desert road without end.


We were taken to a “ghost house”—one of Sudan’s many secret prisons. It was night. A gang of armed toughs screamed into our faces and shoved us against a mud wall. They called us spies. I thought: This is the end. But of course it was only the beginning.

What can be said about those days?

I was on a hunger strike. I was protesting my being held separately, in solitary confinement.

My dreams reached malarial intensity.

I was light-headed with hunger. I had long since run out of things to say. I spotted a small, spiky animal sniffing its way across the interrogation room floor and reached down from my chair.

“Don’t—touch—the—hedgehog!” the colonel said.

It was his pet.

I remember this distinctly: My face felt odd. It was my first smile in ten days.


A nomad’s faith rooted in the traders’ live-and-let-live ethic


My paperwork was in order. But I panicked. I raced through the list of sources who might have betrayed my presence in Kano, settling on a dour pharmacist who must have Googled my name and pounced on the recent headlines: Sudan Charges U.S. Journalist With Espionage.

I frantically began hiding my notes but only managed to throw out my back lifting the room’s refrigerator. I tossed my bag out the second-floor window, eased myself down the exterior sill, and dropped the last nine or ten feet to the ground. My back exploded. So I quit. I gave up. Hobbling into the lobby jackknifed at the waist, with my T-shirt on backward and my surviving notes tucked into in my socks, I found the place empty. The policeman had got tired of waiting. This was Nigeria.


[‘TIA’ – This is Africa]


Timbuktu started as a nomads’ watering hole, grew by the 16th century into the Oxford of the Islamic world (25,000 scholars once resided there), and has faded back into a geographic coma. Its sand alleys were like solar ovens. Goats jaywalked on the main street, and dehydrated tourists sent letters postmarked from a town synonymous with the uttermost end of the Earth.

Having learned a lesson from Afghanistan—ignorance isn’t bliss, and ruinscapes of poverty, violence, and neglect incubate a murderous rage—Washington was taking a renewed interest in Muslim black Africa.

This murky front in the global war on terrorism was yet another invisible line in the Sahel. It zigzagged across the dunes north of Timbuktu where Green Berets taught Malian soldiers how to ambush Algeria-based jihadists.


The last line in the Sahel was the Atlantic.

What was going on here could just as well be called the mass evacuation of Africa as much as “illegal migration.” It was a desperate flight from a way we’ll never be. Shiploads of Senegalese, Malians, Guineans, Nigerians, and Burkinabes to the Canaries.

All had hocked their bicycles, their wives’ treadle sewing machines, their parents’ barren farms, their slum shacks—everything they owned to make the $900 passage to a Sahelian’s version of El Dorado: washing dishes in Valencia or hustling leatherware in the piazzas of Rome. Tens of thousands attempt this passage every year. Hundreds die. The Europeans were sending naval vessels to try to stop them.

The Senegalese capital of Dakar had the fevered feel of an embarkation point—a maritime city of pushy touts, whores for every pocketbook, and scraps of cardboard flattened on sidewalks where visa hunters camped in lines outside European embassies. A reverse trickle of European youngsters, tattooed, puffing cigarettes, self-conscious in their skins, strolled the waterfront. They rode ferries to Île de Gorée, to see the famous “doorway of no return”.

There was talk of bigger canoes, of more barrels of diesel fuel crammed into holds—reenacting the old slave crossing to the Caribbean, to America.

I was secretly with them. I saw myself huddled in that plank boat. But even if we all survived, I wasn’t sure we would ever truly escape the Sahel.


Photos: Pascal Maitre for NGM.

And the rest.


I googled Salopek and was surprised to find that he didn’t write a whole book on this journey – the feature in NGM was just glimpses of his 3-year exploratory trip, including the infamous imprisonment in Darfur on accounts of espionage for crossing illegally from Chad into Sudan. But his translator, also imprisoned and beaten, Daoud Hari, did publish a memoir: The Translator.

But maybe Salopek was thinking already about his next project, the bigger picture. Because in January 2013 he set off on a ‘genographical’ expedition, a 7-year narrative project, the Out of Eden Walk: a journey through time, a sort of pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Tierra del Fuego via Siberia.

رحلة سعيدة


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